The Songs of the Messiah on the Eve of His Death

Human thought struggles to plummet the depths to which the Scriptures saturated the mind and heart of Jesus, the incarnate Word of God.  As Israel’s true King, He read and meditated upon God’s Law to the utmost (cf. Deut. 17:19; Ps. 1:2).  Knowing full well that the united testimony of Scripture orbited around His own person and work (John 5:39; cf. Luke 24:27), the Messiah could not fail to view His whole life, and every event contained in it, through the lens of the written Word.  Simply put, the written Word of God controlled the outlook of the incarnate Word of God — from cradle to cross.  

Just after instituting the Lord’s Supper at His final Passover meal, Jesus and His disciples sang “a hymn” before going out to the Mount of Olives (Matt. 26:30).  The “hymn” referred to by Matthew was likely a portion of the Passover Hallel (Psalms 113-118).  These were the providentially-arranged songs reverberating in the Messiah’s mind as the darkness of Calvary began to press in upon His holy soul.  In His Father’s good and wise providence, the Son would face the agony of Calvary with this portion of the Psalter freshly etched upon his throbbing heart.  

Singing of the Crown that would follow the Cross

Geerhardus Vos points out that Jesus’ messianic consciousness embraced five essential elements, namely, the authoritative; eschatological; supernatural; soteric; and religious-mediatorial.  It is striking to note that each of these elements finds itself woven into the Hallel — the precise Psalms taken up and sung by the Son of God as He faced the darkness of Calvary.  The Father, in infinite love and compassion, put into the hands of His only-begotten Son the words He most needed to hear as He faced the cross.

The Father reminded the Son that He was about to receive the King’s Crown.  But it was an exaltation that could only follow the most degrading humiliation (cf. Phil. 2).  These two strands of messianic fulfillment (i.e., humiliation and exaltation) are both captured in Psalm 118.  The Messiah knew that He was ordained to be King of Kings, yet not apart from His sufferings. 

It was not long before this evening that Jesus had entered the gates of Jerusalem mounted on a donkey, as the crowds roared with the words, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Mt. 21:9 ESV; cf. Ps. 118:26).  Jesus knew full well, however, that His true coronation could not come about prior to His Passover sufferings.  The Messiah had embraced what others had not, namely, the prophetic reality that the King must first be rejected, as a seemingly useless stone is cast away by the builders of a house (cf. Psalm 118:22).  As Jesus took this Psalm upon His lips, both the rejection and subsequent exaltation were closer than they had ever been in His earthly life.      

Singing of the Eschatological Victory of the Last Adam

The Father reminded the Son that He was “the last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45).  As Vos notes, a second element that entered into the Lord’s messianic consciousness was the “eschatological”.  According to Vos:

Although the name Messiah does not itself express this, marking Him only as the Anointed King, yet He is to all intents the great final King, who stands at the close of the present world order and ushers in the coming world”.

The Self-Disclosure of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954), 19.

Psalm 113:2 reads: “Blessed be the name of the LORD, from this time forth and forevermore!” (ESV).  It is important to note that “forevermore” is the word used to describe the Noahic (Gen. 9:12); Abrahamic (Gen. 17:7); Mosaic (Ex. 12:14); Davidic (2 Sam. 7:16); and New covenants (Ezek. 37:26).  The great covenantal blessing, that “they shall be my people, and I will be their God” cannot be conceived apart from the eschatological.  To this effect, Jesus shamed the Sadducees for not believing in the Resurrection: “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Matt. 22: 32 KJV).  The Psalmist put it this way: “For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?” (Ps. 6:5 ESV).  Nor is the Hallel silent on this matter: “The dead praise not the LORD, neither any that go down into silence” (Ps. 115:17 KJV).

Thus, the echoed refrain of unending praise to God found in the Hallel unites with the enduring character of the covenantal relationship between God and His people to penetrate the borders of eternity!  The eternal came down to the temporal in the incarnation of the Son of God.  As the Son prepares to become “obedient to the point of death” (Phil. 2:8 ESV), singing with his disciples of the “forever-ness” involved in being covenantally bound to the Eternal One, the eschatological element comes to the fore.

Singing of the Messiah’s Conquest over the Powers of this World

The Father reminded the Son that His earthly ministry had truly been “attested by God … by miracles, wonders, and signs” (Acts 2:22 NKJV) — the undeniable proof that the kingdom of God had broken into this cursed and fallen world in the person of the Son (cf. Luke 11:20).  Flowing out of this was the Father’s reminder to His only-begotten Son that He was hours away from conquering death itself!  Jesus had exorcised demons; given the blind sight; multiplied loaves and fishes; walked on water; calmed the raging seas; and much more. 

Now, as the Messiah eats the last Passover with His disciples, He sings the Hallel in light of what had been a truly supernatural ministry that is about to reach its climax.  However, the supernatural element in the Messiah’s work will not recede into the background as that work enters its next phase.  Rather, the supernatural will be (from man’s perspective) eclipsed in the dark hours of Calvary, only to give way to the most supernatural event of the Messiah’s work yet — His being raised from the dead. 

In infinite love and wisdom, the Father had arranged for the Son to sing about His miraculous deliverance from death as that very death stared him in the face!  Psalm 115:17-18 speaks of the conflict between death and eternity: “The dead do not praise the LORD, nor do any who go down into silence.  But we will bless the Lord from this time forth and forevermore” (ESV).  The triumphant note of victory cannot be missed in the Psalmist’s confidence that death would not be the final word.  How much more confidence was lodged in the heart of the Messiah as the darkness of Calvary began to descend!

Psalm 116:8-9 carries a similar note of triumphant victory for the Messiah:

For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling; I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living

ESV

Finally, Psalm 118:17 speaks also of the Messiah’s victory over the grave: “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord” (ESV).  In sum, the supernatural element that entered into our Lord’s Messianic consciousness cannot be conceived apart from its most acute display of the miraculous in his resurrection from the dead.  The glorious prospect of this victory over the grave must surely have imbued the Messiah’s final Passover singing of the Hallel with unparalleled hope in God, mingled with a sobriety of the sublimest nature.       

Singing of the only Saviour of Sinners – God Himself

The Father reminded the Son that He was the Saviour of the world.  The fourth element that entered into our Lord’s Messianic consciousness, according to Vos, was the “soteric”.  Says Vos:

The Messiah stands for salvation; indeed, ‘Saviour’ is the most popular name by which the Christ has come to be known among His followers.  This saving aspect of the Messiah’s work is inseparable from His vocation … Without the hope of salvation to be wrought through Him, the greater part of the Messiah’s reason for existence would fall away.”

The Self-Disclosure of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954), 25.

Two instances of the soteric (i.e., salvation) element figure in to the Hallel.  The first is the singing of Psalm 114 as a whole.  Of course, this is a Psalm explicitly celebrating the Egyptian deliverance, an example of the Lord’s mighty arm of salvation par excellence.  The fact that even such a grand deliverance as the Exodus from Egypt stood as a mere type of the greater deliverance to be accomplished by the Messiah endows the Hallel with a unique Messianic weightiness.  As Jesus ate His last Passover supper with the disciples, His own Messiahship would eclipse the Passover itself as at no other time in the history of the ordinance.  All the Passover celebrations — from Moses onward — had been building up to this one final celebration, where the Messiah would sing of the Lord’s great redemption, not from Egypt but from sin and the devil.  Not with the blood of a market-bought lamb, but with the precious blood of the Son of God himself.  Indeed, Jesus — more than anyone else that night — knew the full weight of the words of Psalm 118:24: “This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (ESV).

The second instance of the soteric (i.e., salvation) element in the Hallel is seen in the thrice-repeated refrain of “salvation” in Psalm 118 (vv. 14, 15, 21).  One is of course reminded of the angel’s words to Joseph:

… do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 

Matt. 1:20-21 ESV.

There is an interesting connection between Ps. 118:14 and the original deliverance out of Egypt.  Ps. 118:14 reads: “The Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation” (ESV).  An identical refrain is heard from the lips of Moses as he leads the people, under God, out of slavery in Egypt: “The LORD is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation …” (Ex. 15:2a ESV).  

The Lord, alone, is the Saviour of His people.  As it was in the days of Moses, so it remains in the days of the Messiah.  However, the Messiah alone can refer to Himself as the Saviour!  The Apostle Paul marvelled at this glorious reality:

Therefore God has highly exalted him [i.e., Christ] and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” 

Phil. 2:9-11 ESV.

It is likely that the Apostle is here alluding to the earlier words of the prophet Isaiah:

Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth!  For I am God, and there is no other.  By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.” 

Is. 45:22-23 ESV.

Thus, the soteric element that entered into the messianic consciousness of Jesus had opportunity to flex its muscle, so to speak, as our Lord sang of God, the only Saviour — both in the days of Moses as well as the days of the Messiah.  Remarkably, we once again hear Jesus singing with His disciples about Himself, as the darkness of Calvary approaches.  

Singing of the One Mediator between God and Men

Finally, the Father reminded the Son that no less than a Divine Mediator could reconcile man and God, and that “there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5 NKJV).  The eternal Son — alone — was to enter the sphere of worldly existence and execute the messianic function of divine-human mediation.  Man’s needs could not have been met by a Messiah who was not Himself divine.  But equally so, man’s redemptive needs could not have been met by a Messiah who was only divine.  Thus, the two requisites for man’s salvation unite in the Person of the God-Man, Jesus.

It has already been demonstrated that the soteric element in the messianic consciousness finds expression in the Hallel in Psalm 114 and Psalm 118.  Moreover, it has been pointed out that the true Saviour of God’s people is always God Himself.  Thus, the soteric and divine elements of the messianic consciousness converge at this very point.  However, the Hallel may also point to another instance of the divine element in the Messianic consciousness.  

Psalm 114, a Psalm celebrating Israel’s deliverance from Egyptian slavery, ends by praising God as the One “who turns the rock into a pool of water, the flint into a spring of water” (v. 8; ESV).  These words are likely an allusion to God’s provision of water from the rock in the wilderness wanderings (cf. Ex. 17:6).  Many years later, writing to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul would refer back to this incident as one full of warning and instruction for the Church.  Paul identifies the rock in the wilderness with Christ Himself: “For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10:4 ESV).  The incarnate God-Man took the words of Psalm 114:8 upon His lips as He celebrated God’s past provision for His people in the wilderness, while at the same time singing of God’s faithfulness in providing the true spiritual food and drink for lost and helpless sinners, namely, Himself!

Thus, we see that every event recorded for us in the gospels truly repays careful study.  Oh, how pregnant are the words of Jesus as He reclined at the table at His last Passover with the disciples:  “With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (Luke 22:15 NKJV).  It was a Passover toward which His whole life had been leading.  It was a Passover that would see the blessed sacrament instituted by the Son of God Himself.  It was a Passover providentially-arranged, from before the foundation of the world, wherein God the Father, in infinite love, goodness, and wisdom would remind His only-begotten Son of what He most needed to hear, as the darkness of Calvary began to descend upon His holy soul.  And the Father did it through the written Word and the power of the Spirit.  May we never forget what God has given us in the Scriptures.  “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (Psalm 119:105 KJV).   

*Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The ESV Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version), copyright 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

*Scripture quotations marked (NKJV) are taken from the New King James Version. Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

*Geerhardus Vos. The Self-Disclosure of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1954.

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